Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Reading for pleasure and high school

This article from the Washington Post really struck a chord with me professionally and personally.

Sherre Sachar comes from a book-loving family. Her father, Louis, is an award-winning author, and the graduating senior thinks that settling down with a good book should be one of life's great joys. But as she prepares to leave high school and head to Cornell University in the fall, she is tired of reading.

The extensive required reading in her high school classes -- including Advanced Placement English Literature, where she flew from one classic to another -- left her with no time to pick up books she thought would be fun. And she was frustrated by teachers who offered either too little help in understanding the complex texts or conducted tortured efforts to wring symbolism out of every word.

AP testing has become big business as families try to shave college costs by gaining college credit in high school and students work to boost their GPAs. I am VERY sympathetic to this point of view. There is also intense social pressure to keep up with the "high-flyers" and students often feel that AP classes prepare them for the rigor of college courses.

As a result AP literature classes are full and students are slogging through William Falkner, John Steinbeck, Jane Austen, Hawthorne, Robert Penn Warren, Amy Tan, Daniel Dafoe, Nathanial West, Upton Sinclair, Joseph Conrad, Hermann Hesse (oh spare me,) and on and on.

I am absolutely in favor of studying the classics. I love tuning into Book World because she is taking on Don Quixote and Tristam Shandy. In the hands of a good teacher students can appreciate and understand why they are being asked to read these books. Sadly though, too often it becomes a death march instead of a voyage of exploration.

How many times did I ask my kids what they had learned about the author or why the book was in the canon only to learn NO background or supplementary information had been shared at all? As parents we filled in those blanks but what about the other kids?

In daughter no. 1's case, tests were 100 questions to be answered in 50 minutes covering surprising minutia. "When they stopped for gas the third time on the way to California, what was the name of the street the gas station was on?" (A friend referred to the tests as Accelerated Reader on steroids.) I was always hopeful, "was there some significance to the name of the street?"
"No just she is just making sure we had read it."

The article comments:

With high-stakes standardized testing driving curriculum and teachers increasingly required to use scripted lesson plans, what is getting lost for many teachers is the freedom to allow students to explore books of their choosing -- and the time to explore the meaning, the educators say.
There is excellent YA literature that addresses similar themes as books on AP reading lists. One of my most inspiring professors, Kylene Beers, advocated pairing aYA book with a classic as a way to make the ideas more accessible for students. I have always felt that students should read The Giver before tackling Orwell's 1984.

All this combined with the concerns that we are loosing a generation of boys as readers and I wonder why we are going about this so wrong-headedly.

When it came time to choose the AP or regular track in English for Daughter no. 2 I told her to study George Elliot and Falkner in college with professors who were qualified to talk about them. She still read and studied many important books (Beowulf, Huck Finn, Shakespeare, Animal Farm) but she had time to enjoy and continue to read for pleasure.

Daughter no. 3 starts high school next year, here we go again...

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